Language and Democracy

One of the most intriguing sessions as last week’s Frontiers of Democracy Conference was on “democratic reading and writing,” a topic inspired by Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration.

I’ve only just begun reading Allen’s book, but I am struck by the core of her argument.

“The achievement of political equality requires, among other things,” she writes, “the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures.”

This seems like something of a bold statement. Not that language is explicitly not required, but  there are so many great barriers to political equality, it is easy, perhaps, to dismiss language as the least of our problems.

But words do have power.

In How To Do Things With Words, J.L. Austin argues that words can, in the fullest sense, be actions. The performative act of an utterance goes beyond the physical action of speaking; something is actually accomplished by the words themselves.

“Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons,” Austin argues, “and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them…”

Not all utterances are performative acts, but some words do have this power. Words may bind one into an agreement, or may have a real impact on the listener.

The American Declaration of Independence, which Allen close reads in her book, is one example of the power and action of words. It “brings to light the incandescent magic of human politics: the fact that it is possible for people, with ideas, conversations, and decision-making committees – both formal and informal – to weave together an agreement that can define our common life.”

The process of reading and writing democratically is messy, frustrating, and hard. But from it, Allen argues, emerges a greater whole, something better and stronger than would have existed otherwise. “The source of sturdiness is solidarity,” she writes.

The Declaration, Allen finds, “is as much about how to solve the central conundrum of democracy – how to make sure public actions can count as the will of the people – as about anything else. It is about how to ensure that public words belong to us all….I believe the Declaration succeeded, and succeeds still, because it took on the task of explaining why this quantity of talk, this heap of procedures, these lists of committees, and this much hard-won agreement – such a maddening quantity of group writing – are necessary for justice. The argument of the Declaration justifies the process by which the Declaration came to be. It itself explains why they art of democratic writing is necessary.”

In short, as Allen argues: this country was built on talk.


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